About the World Digital Library: Background

Background

U.S. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington proposed the establishment of the WDL in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005. The basic idea was to create an Internet-based, easily-accessible collection of the world's cultural riches that would tell the stories and highlight the achievements of all countries and cultures, thereby promoting cross-cultural awareness and understanding. UNESCO welcomed the idea as a contribution toward fulfilling UNESCO's strategic objectives, which include promoting knowledge societies, building capacity in developing countries, and promoting cultural diversity on the Web. UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura designated UNESCO's Directorate for Communication and Information, led by Dr. Abdul Waheed Khan, to work with the Library of Congress to develop the project.

In December 2006, UNESCO and the Library of Congress convened an Experts Meeting to discuss the project. The assembled experts from all parts of the world identified a number of challenges that the project would need to overcome to be successful. They noted that little cultural content was being digitized in many countries and that developing countries in particular lacked the capacity to digitize and display their cultural treasures. Existing Web sites often had poorly developed search and display functions. Multilingual access was not well developed. Many Web sites maintained by cultural institutions were difficult to use and, in many cases, failed to appeal to users, particularly young users.

The Experts Meeting led to the establishment of working groups to develop guidelines for the project, and to a decision by the Library of Congress, UNESCO, and five partner institutions - the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library - to develop and contribute content to a WDL prototype to be presented at the UNESCO General Conference in 2007. Input into the design of the prototype was solicited through a consultative process that involved UNESCO, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), and individuals and institutions in more than forty countries.

The successful unveiling of the prototype was followed by a decision by several libraries to develop a public, freely-accessible version of the WDL, for launch at UNESCO in April 2009. More than two dozen institutions contributed content to the launch version of the site.

The public version of the site features high-quality digital items reflecting the cultural heritage of all UNESCO member countries. The WDL will continue to add content to the site, and will enlist new partners from the widest possible range of UNESCO members in the project.

WDL Milestones

  • June 2005: Librarian of Congress James H. Billington proposes establishing a World Digital Library to UNESCO.
  • December 2006: UNESCO and the Library of Congress co-sponsor an Experts Meeting with key stakeholders from all regions of the world. The Experts Meeting results in a decision to establish working groups to develop standards and content selection guidelines.
  • October 2007: The Library of Congress and five partner institutions present a prototype of the future WDL at the UNESCO General Conference.
  • April 2009: The WDL is launched to the international public, with content about every UNESCO member state.

Key Features

The WDL represents a shift in digital library projects from a focus on quantity for its own sake to quality; quantity remains a priority, but not at the expense of the quality standards established during the start-up phase.

The WDL breaks new ground in the following areas, each representing significant investments of time and effort:

  1. Consistent metadata: Each item is described by a consistent set of bibliographic information (or metadata) relating to its geographical, temporal, and topical coverage, among other requirements. Consistent metadata provides the foundation for a site that is easy and interesting to explore, and that helps to reveal connections between items. The metadata also improves exposure to external search engines.
  2. Description: Among the most impressive features of the WDL are descriptions of each item, answering the questions: “What is this item and why is it significant?” This information, written by curators and other experts, provides vital context for users and is designed to spark the curiosity of students and the general public to learn more about the cultural heritage of all countries.
  3. Multilingualism: The metadata, navigation, and supporting content (e.g., curator videos) are translated into seven languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. This feature lengthened site development and complicates maintenance, but brings WDL closer to the goal of being truly universal.
  4. Digital library technical development: The WDL team's work with state-of-the art tools and technologies led to advances in cataloging and multilingual Web site development:
    • A new cataloging application was developed to support the metadata requirements.
    • A centralized tool with a translation memory was used, which prevents translators from having to translate the same word or phrase twice.
    • An interface was developed, which features the WDL content in ways that are appealing to nontraditional users and that encourage exploration of primary sources.
    • New technologies continue to be developed, improving workflow and reducing the time elapsed between content selection and availability on the site.
  5. Collaborative network: The WDL emphasizes openness in all aspects of the project: access to content; technology transfer for capacity building; and partner, stakeholder, and user participation. Technical and programmatic networks are seen as vital to WDL's sustainability and growth.

Partners

See a current list of partners.

Partners are mainly libraries, archives, or other institutions that have collections of cultural content that they contribute to the WDL. Partners may also include institutions, foundations, and private companies that contribute to the project in other ways, for example by sharing technology, convening or co-sponsoring meetings of working groups, or contributing financially.

Digitization Centers

While many of the partners or prospective partners that wish to contribute content to the WDL have well-established digitization programs with dedicated staff and equipment, others, particularly in the developing world, do not have access to these capabilities. Over the years, the Library of Congress has worked with partners in Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, and Russia to establish digital conversion centers to produce high-quality digital images. Much of the content on the WDL was produced at these centers.

The WDL supports UNESCO's mission of capacity building in developing countries, and intends to work with UNESCO, partners in these countries, and external funders to establish additional digital conversion centers throughout the world. These centers will produce content not only for the WDL, but for other national and international projects as well.

WDL Working Groups

WDL Working Groups established after the December 2006 Experts Meeting include the Content Selection Working Group and a Technical Architecture Working Group. These groups are comprised primarily of representatives from partner institutions.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the Library of Congress have co-sponsored a working group to develop guidelines for digital libraries, including the WDL.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in cooperation with the Library of Congress and UNESCO, sponsors an International Advisory Committee on the History of Arabic and Islamic Science to identify important scientific books and manuscripts from the Arab and Islamic world, and to facilitate inclusion of these items on the WDL.